Affective Variables

“The emotions and general moods that a learner brings to bear on a task. Virtually any form of affect has both psychological elements (subjective feelings) and physiologically elements (changes in heart rate, perspiration, muscular tension, etc.)" (Ormrod, 2014).

Examples of Affective Variables:
  • Aversive: Fight or Flight Response: When in a fearful situation your heart rate increases and your muscles tense up
  • Pleasant: When in the company of others, a person is more apt to smile, laugh, and overall feel comfortable.


The brain structure related to affect is the amygdala. Human beings have two amygdalea, almond-shaped parts of the limbic system, in either hemisphere of the midbrain. The amygdala is responsible for unpleasant feelings and automatic emotional responses. It alerts us of stimuli in the environment that could pose a potential threat and allows us to associate emotion with certain memories or stimuli. It also is connected to other brain structures that have a role in learning and cognition such as the hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex, and prefrontal cortex (2014).


Affect plays an important role in human motivation. People act in ways that will make them feel positive emotions and try to avoid acting in ways that would make them feel negative emotions.

Acting in a way to get social or cultural approval is one way how affect is related to motivation. Self-conscious emotion is "an affective state based on self-evaluation regarding the extent to which one’s actions meet society’s standards for appropriate and desirable behavior; pride, guilt shame" (2014). Meeting or failing to meet the cultural standards can affect a person's self-worth. When people meet their society's standards they feel a sense of pride, but when they fail, they can feel guilty or shameful.

Intrinsic motivation is determined by how people feel about certain tasks. Learners are more willing to take on a challenge if it is related to something they enjoy, or if the task itself makes them feel happy. People's feelings can also affect how they interpret the result of completing a task (2014). How much was the success (or failure) due to their own skills? Were there other, uncontrollable circumstances that influenced the results of the task?

An emotion that is closely related to motivation is boredom. Human beings need stimulus (cognitive or physical) to feel aroused, when there are not enough stimuli, a person will feel bored. If people feel bored they will either try to change their environment or create their own stimuli (2014). In a classroom, bored students can be disruptive because they are trying to create stimuli to keep them from feeling bored.

Learning and Cognition

Brain structures related to affect and those that support cognition are closely related. The affective reactions of learners are often connected with thinking and learning. While students are learning, they also learn whether or not they like what it is they are learning. They can feel frustrated or anxious if they are struggling to learn. When students have trouble learning something they tend to say that they hate it (2014).

Learning or cognitive processing that is emotionally charged is called hot cognition. Students more likely to think about, remember, and pay attention to emotionally charged information. (Example, sympathy, feeling bad for people whose basic human rights are being violated.)

Cognitive dissonance is a term coined by Piaget that describes the feeling of mental discomfort caused by new information that conflicts with current knowledge of beliefs. Learners try to resolve the conflict. Can go through conceptual change or ignoring or discrediting new info (2014).

A learner’s general mood affects how well they learn. Students are more likely to engage in meaningful learning when in a positive stage of mind. Feeling sad, frustrated, or bored, makes it more likely to do inflexible learning methods such as rehearsal.

Ways to boost positive affect:

  • Game-like features into tasks and activities (crossword puzzles or game show review sessions)
  • Adjusting task difficulty levels
  • Having students ask themselves questions that focus on positive aspects of the classroom experience (“what am I excited about?”)(2014)


Anxiety is a feeling of uneasiness and apprehension due to a situation having an uncertain outcome. Anxiety affects cognition by causing troubling thoughts and worry. It affects affect by causing physiological responses (such as perspiration, increased heart rate, and muscle tension) and behavioral responses (such as restlessness or pacing). Anxiety is similar to fear, except with anxiety a person is not sure what is causing the feelings of discomfort.

Anxiety can interfere with cognitive processes such as attention and information processing and retrieval. It also interferes with working memory and long term memory. However, small amount of anxiety are necessary to motive people into completing tasks.

There are different types of anxiety based on situation and severity:

State anxiety: Temporary feeling of anxiety created by a threatening situation.

Trait anxiety: General pattern of responding with anxiety even in nonthreatening situations. Often affects performance.

Facilitating anxiety: level of anxiety (usually relatively low) that enhances performance. Makes students go to class, complete homework, study, etc.

Debilitating anxiety: sufficient intensity that interferes with performance. Too much anxiety. Distracts and interferes with tasks at hand (2014).

The Relationship of Affective Variables to Student Performance: Research Findings
A study of high-risk college freshman was done and researchers found that affective variables effect how students performed their freshman year.

Ormrod, J.E. (2014). Educational psychology: Developing learners. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.